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Non-interference to global governance: China's shifting approach to international affairs

Image credit: Antonio R. Villaraigosa (Flickr: Creative Commons)

China’s official approach to international affairs has been traditionally one of ‘non-interference’. This approach was introduced by Zhou Enlei in the 1970s, consistently followed by Deng Xiaoping throughout the 1980s and 90s, and reaffirmed by President Hu Jintao in the early 2000s where he highlighted that the growing nation would focus and direct its resources towards domestic development and growth rather than concerns in international affairs. However, recent initiatives and events—such as the One Belt One Road initiative, establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and China’s hosting of the G20—demonstrate Beijing’s shift in policy to one of ‘global governance’.

One has to ask: What does this increasingly popular buzzword among Chinese politicians and experts actually mean for the world’s second largest economy and most populated nation? And why the sudden change in China’s approach to international affairs?

There is no one clear definition used among the Chinese for their approach to ‘global governance’, but there is a common theme. One example is President Xi Jingping’s recent call for ‘closer cooperation to pursue reforms to the global governance system and advance the noble cause of peace and development of mankind’. Xi argued for a systems reform, referring to the change in rebalancing international power, including China’s appeals for the permanent five structure of the UN Security Council to be democratised. This is also supported by India—another growing economy. Furthermore, Xi Jinping emphasised that China would make more of an effort to participate in and contribute to global governance; in other words—international affairs.

Other meetings around the G20 reiterated the importance of global ‘cooperation’ and ‘innovation’ as major drivers of growth. Such seminars highlighted that China’s extensive experience in infrastructure development and economic modernisation strongly aligns with the G20’s long-term agenda, and perhaps can be used as a model for other developing economies.

So why this significant change in approach? In contributing 40% of the world’s total GDP growth, understandably China is seeking out a new identity, vision and strategy, as well as a new role in the global arena as a world power. The difference in Beijing’s attitude now compared to previous years is that China is not only willing to participate on the world stage, but also has the ‘capability’ to do so. Beijing evidently wants to have a say in key global issues by which it is impacted now and into the future, which include counterterrorism, cyber security, nuclear security, climate change and sustainable development.

Another argument is that due to China’s intensively expanded levels of foreign investment in recent years, it’s impossible for it not to be drawn into international affairs discussions or not want to protect its resources and future growth opportunities. China, which is already one of the leading investors in countries such as Cuba, Myanmar, Venezuela, Cambodia and various African nations, should play a pivotal role in global affairs through assisting other developing economies.

With this new strategic approach, Beijing is proactively seeking out and using a mixture of hard and soft power. China recently announced it will be opening its first overseas military base, opposite a US military base, in Djibouti. Furthermore, at the Xiangshan Forum in October, Beijing declared the it will aim to ‘build a new type of international relations through security dialogue and cooperation’.

Despite this shift, China’s recent diplomatic tactics highlight that Beijing’s strategy of ‘global governance’ still places China at the top of priorities. An example of this is Foreign Minster Wang Yi’s outburst over a question criticising China’s human rights record at a press conference during his visit to Canada in June 2016. China will only engage and offer benefits to other countries if they are willing to understand that China’s core interests are fundamental above all else.

This assertive foreign policy approach is based on China’s expectation that other nations will respect that some topics are and always will be taboo. It has even been labelled as the ‘glass ceiling’ to China’s ‘diplomatic sophistication’. This may ultimately prevent China from reaching the powerful role in global affairs it seeks.

Jane Kerr is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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